WAC ShootAround: Heavy turnover leaves conference wide open

Updated: August 27, 2008

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Will incoming freshman Luke Babbitt make the biggest impact on the WAC?

The departed and the depleted

It's possible the best player in the WAC has yet to make an impact. It's possible because Nevada freshman Luke Babbitt has the potential to be that good, and his timing is right.

Remove a star from any movie classic and the film would be diminished. So in that sense, this conference is "The Departed" minus Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon.

The WAC, which lost 11 of its top 12 scorers, might not be gearing up for a classic season. All the big-ticket stars departed, and most of the elite teams are depleted.

It adds a mystery element to this season, one that Utah State coach Stew Morrill is not trying to solve on his summer vacation.

"We do have a lot of question marks, like a lot of teams in our league," Morrill said. "Our league is one of those leagues, you just don't know for sure who's going to be what until you get in the middle of it."

The stage is set for players such as Babbitt, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward. And while Babbitt will be a big part of the league's future, it's impossible to survey the WAC without looking in the rear-view mirror. Boise State, Nevada, New Mexico State and Utah State finished in a four-way tie for the regular-season title.

Only the Broncos advanced to the NCAA tournament. But coach Greg Graham also suffered the most attrition by losing four seniors, including Reggie Larry and Matt Nelson, who combined to average 35.1 points and 16.5 rebounds per game.

Morrill is rebuilding without guard Jaycee Carroll, the conference player of the year and the Aggies' all-time leading scorer. Carroll averaged a WAC-high 24.5 points in conference games.

New Mexico State also said goodbye to four senior starters, including Justin Hawkins, who averaged 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds.

The Wolf Pack is without guard Marcelus Kemp (20.0 ppg) and center JaVale McGee, who jumped to the NBA after a strong sophomore season and was a first-round pick.

Herb Pope

Ivan Pierre Aguirre/US Presswire

Sophomore Herb Pope is one of the top returning players in a depleted conference.

"There's going to be a lot of good teams, but there's not a team returning a group where you say they're the clear-cut favorite to win the league," Nevada coach Mark Fox said.

With that said, Fox probably has the team that should be favored to the win the league. New Mexico State and Utah State also figure to be near the top of the ladder.

"Right now, it's kind of wide open on paper," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. "You've got some quality underclassmen on these teams that are coming back."

Two of those returnees, junior Brandon Fields and sophomore Armon Johnson, are in the Wolf Pack's backcourt. Johnson was the WAC's Freshman of the Year.

Babbitt, a McDonald's All-American, originally committed to Ohio State but backpedaled and stayed home in Reno, where Fox hauled in a recruiting class ranked 20th by Scouts Inc.

"Luke is going to have to be really productive for us, and I think he will be, but he still will have that adjustment period," Fox said. "I do think we have enough talent to win."

Menzies welcomes back three rising stars in junior guard Jonathan Gibson, sophomore forward Herb Pope and sophomore guard Jahmar Young.

"We're going to be very, very young," said Menzies, who has nine newcomers on his roster. "We're optimistic about our long-term projections here, but we'll have our trials and tribulations early."

The only player back from last season's all-conference first and second teams is Gary Wilkinson, Utah State's 6-9 senior.

Morrill has guided the Aggies to nine straight postseason appearances, and he expects to extend the streak to 10.

"At least we're not losing Jaycee and everybody else," Morrill said. "We've got to have everybody at each position step up a little more if we're going to be any good. But I kind of like this team."

Matt Youmans covers college basketball for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Five things to watch in '08-09

Another shot at North Carolina
Getting quality opponents to visit Reno is no easy task for Nevada coach Mark Fox, who said scheduling had "just been a nightmare."

But Fox and North Carolina coach Roy Williams have agreed on a 2-for-1 series, with two games in Chapel Hill, N.C., while the Tar Heels will play in Reno on Dec. 31. UNC blasted the Wolf Pack 106-70 last December. Tyler Hansbrough had 26 points and eight boards in the win.

"They have the [national] Player of the Year, and he's coming back," Fox said. "That didn't work out maybe the way we thought," Fox said. "It will be a huge challenge."

Nevada dealing with NBA dilemma
Three Wolf Pack players -- JaVale McGee, Ramon Sessions and Kirk Snyder -- have left early for the NBA since 2004.

"That's not a mid-major problem. That doesn't happen to a lot of schools our size," Fox said.

McGee, a 7-foot center, averaged 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. He was picked to the all-WAC second team and the all-defensive team, and was selected 18th overall by the Washington Wizards in June's NBA draft.

"He developed a little faster than anyone anticipated," Fox said. "He had a good year and he's gone, and you're not prepared for that. I thought if he came back here, he would maybe be a top-five pick."

Freshman forward Luke Babbitt might be the next Nevada player to jump to the NBA early, but that could be two or three years away.

Flemings brings hope to Hawaii
Bob Nash had a restless first year as Hawaii's head coach. The Warriors finished 11-19, losing seven games by six points or fewer and another in overtime. But help is on the way.

Roderick Flemings, a 6-7 forward from Weatherford (Texas) College, is being hyped as Hawaii's biggest recruit in 10 years. He played at Oklahoma State as a freshman, averaged 20.7 points and 11.7 rebounds last season in junior college and chose the Warriors over Kentucky, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

One and done in postseason?
Boise State was the league's lone representative in the 2008 NCAA tournament, where the Broncos lost in the first round to Louisville.

Utah State lost an NIT first-round game to Illinois State on the road, and Nevada lost to Houston 80-79 in the first round of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.

In the final RPI standings, Utah State ranked highest among WAC teams at 71, followed by Nevada (74), Boise State (87) and New Mexico State (124).

"Are we going to be a one-bid league?" asked Utah State coach Stew Morrill. "We need to get multiple bids, and we've got to get back to that. The computer has kind of screwed everybody up. We just look at the computer rankings now and think they're right."

Leaving Las Cruces
New Mexico State had the home-court advantage in the WAC tournament and won it in 2007. But last season, the Aggies fell to Boise State 107-102 in a triple-overtime championship thriller.

The tournament moves to Reno for the next two seasons.

"It's a distinct advantage," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said, "and Nevada will experience that next year."


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Matt Youmans
Special to ESPN.com
WAC
Boise StateBoise State
Junior guard Anthony Thomas might feel lonely as the Broncos' only returning starter. Thomas, who started all 34 games for a 25-9 team, averaged 8.5 points and finished with 141 assists (4.1 apg). Several unproven players must produce if any type of postseason bid is possible. Three seniors -- guards Aaron Garner and Jamar Greene and 6-foot-7 forward Mark Sanchez -- will fill big roles. Ike Okoye, a 6-9 transfer from Wyoming, and junior college transfers Robert Arnold and Sean Imadiyi are in the hunt to start.

Fresno StateFresno State
The bad news for coach Steve Cleveland is he lost four senior starters, including leading scorers Kevin Bell and Eddie Miller (they combined for 33.3 ppg), from a team that finished 13-19. There isn't much good news, either. But senior guard Dwight O'Neil is back to lead the Bulldogs after being limited to 12 starts because of injury, and junior Sylvester Seay is eligible after transferring from Arizona State.

HawaiiHawaii
Seven seniors are subtracted but one major addition is 6-7 forward Roderick Flemings. A junior college transfer, Flemings made the rare move of picking Hawaii over Kentucky. Bill Amis, a 6-9 forward, averaged 8.5 points and shot a team-best 55.7 percent from the field in 20 starts as a sophomore. The Warriors are hoping for contributions from junior college transfers Lasha Parghalava, a 6-2 guard, and 6-8, 250-pound Petras Balocka. The point guard spot will be shared by sophomores Kareem Nitoto and Hiram Thompson.

IdahoIdaho
Don Verlin, a longtime assistant to Stew Morrill at Utah State, takes over a program in need of an overhaul. The Vandals finished 8-21 (5-11 WAC) last season, and that was a big improvement from the 4-27 (1-15) showing the previous season. Luis Augusto, a 6-8, 245-pound senior, is the most experienced returning player, but he averaged just 2.4 points in 17 starts. Junior Jordan Brooks, the team's leading scorer with 12.4 ppg, was dismissed. Verlin will rely on three guards -- Mac Hopson, Trevor Morris and Kashif Watson -- and 6-10 Marvin Jefferson in the middle.

Louisiana TechLouisiana Tech
In his first year, Bulldogs coach Kerry Rupp took his lumps. But his sights always were set on this season, when he welcomes 11 newcomers. Rupp expects an infusion of talent from transfers Magnum Rolle (Louisiana State), Kenneth Cooper (Oklahoma State) and Jamel White (Nebraska). Junior guard Kyle Gibson, who led the team with 16.5 points per game, is one of the conference's top players. The Bulldogs will definitely better their 6-24 record of last season, but don't expect a miracle Dec. 28 at UCLA.

NevadaNevada
Expect a more profitable March for Nevada, which paid to host the first-round game it lost to Houston in the College Basketball Invitational. But coach Mark Fox still had his fourth consecutive 20-win season. His backcourt returns two starters, Brandon Fields and Armon Johnson, and senior backup Lyndale Burleson. A talented recruiting class includes 6-9 Luke Babbitt, 6-8 Dario Hunt, 6-8 Ahyaro Phillips, 6-7 Joey Shaw and freshman guard London Giles. Richie Phillips, a 6-7 junior, returns from a stress fracture in his left leg, and he was the best athlete on the team prior to injuries that have plagued his career.

New Mexico StateNew Mexico State
If anyone could afford to lose four senior starters, it's second-year Aggies coach Marvin Menzies. His recruiting is not lacking. He has three of the league's top players -- junior guard Jonathan Gibson, sophomore forward Herb Pope and sophomore guard Jahmar Young -- and all were double-figure scorers for a 21-14 team. Troy Gillenwater, a 6-8 forward, should make a big impact as a redshirt freshman. Chris Gabriel and Hamidu Rahman are freshmen big men to watch, and Terrance Joyner and Johnny Higgins are young point guards with promise.

SJSUSan Jose State
George Nessman, who has won only 24 games in three years as Spartans coach, has his best team by far. San Jose State is the only WAC team to return all five starters and the only team to return five players who averaged double figures in scoring. The top returner is 6-9, 255-pound junior C.J. Webster, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. Nessman also welcomes back guards Justin Graham and DaShawn Wright and forwards Tim Pierce and Chris Oakes. The Spartans have not finished at least .500 since the 2000-01 season.

Utah StateUtah State
The Aggies will replace the league's top player, Jaycee Carroll, with several players. One of the key newcomers is 6-1 junior point guard Jared Quayle, who averaged 24.4 points at Western Wyoming Community College. The inside story is positive, with 6-9 senior Gary Wilkinson and 6-7 sophomore Tai Wesley bringing the muscle. Wilkinson, Wesley and 6-4 swingman Tyler Newbold are returning starters. Rich Sirju and Pooh Williams will share time at shooting guard. In 10 years at Utah State, coach Stew Morrill is 142-12 at home.

If I were the WAC commish …

I know you can't push teams out of the league, and Louisiana Tech actually should be a more formidable foe with Kerry Rupp as head coach. But the travel in this league, from Honolulu to Ruston, La., can't go on forever.

The league has been doing fine at the top with Nevada. Expect Utah State, Fresno State, Boise State and New Mexico State to be consistent winners. Getting Idaho at the bottom to improve would help tremendously. It's important that Hawaii remains relevant. Going to Hawaii is a chore, but if the Rainbow Warriors are a winner, it helps the league. The Rainbow Classic can bring decent teams to the Island and can help Hawaii's power rating.

Trying to find a permanent home for the WAC tournament would help. I'm not sure if that's possible with such an expansive league, but getting a regular spot could help create more of an identity.

2007-08 WAC Standings

Overall record WAC record
Boise State* 25-9 12-4
Utah State^ 24-11 12-4
Nevada# 21-12 12-4
New Mexico State 21-14 12-4
Hawaii 11-19 7-9
Fresno State 13-19 5-11
Idaho 8-21 5-11
San Jose State 13-19 4-12
Louisiana Tech 6-24 3-13
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth
#CBI berth

For all the WAC news and notes, check out the conference page.

Top returning scorers

Player PPG
Kyle Gibson, Louisiana Tech, Jr. 16.5
Gary Wilkinson, Utah State, Sr. 13.3
Brandon Fields, Nevada, Jr. 12.4
Jonathan Gibson, New Mexico State, Jr. 12.2
C.J. Webster, San Jose State, Jr. 11.3
Armon Johnson, Nevada, Soph. 11.3

Top returning rebounders

Player RPG
Chris Oakes, San Jose State, Jr. 7.2
Gary Wilkinson, Utah State, Sr. 7.0
C.J. Webster, San Jose State, Jr. 6.8
Herb Pope, New Mexico State, Soph. 6.8
Wendell McKines, New Mexico State, Soph. 5.9

Final Shots

• The WAC didn't place any team in the Top 50 of the Prestige Rankings of programs since 1984-85. But six of the nine squads made the top 150. Which WAC team placed highest? Prestige Rankings

• The WAC used to be a hoops power, but the conference has slipped of late and become a one-bid league. Will 2009 be any different? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootAround archive.